Asked to comment on an ongoing free speech row between the NBA and China sparked by a pro-Hong Kong tweet sent last week, President Trump on Wednesday opted to attack NBA coaches rather than comment on Beijing’s role.
The president specifically criticized Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for their response to China's various moves to scorn the NBA after an executive expressed support for Hong Kong protesters. He accused the pair of “pandering to China” for not speaking out and suggested they didn't have “respect” for America, complaining that they “talk badly about the United States.”
Popovich, a former Air Force member, has been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration. ESPN reports that Kerr has also previously been very outspoken about social issues in the U.S. and has spoken negatively about Trump in public.
Trump said Kerr, who has said he wanted to learn more about the situation before commenting on it, was acting like a “little boy who was so scared” when he declined to comment on Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's pro-Hong Kong tweet.
“He couldn’t answer the question. He was shaking. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know.’ He didn’t know how to answer the question. And yet he’ll talk about the United States very badly,” Trump continued.
When talking about Popovich's avoidance to directly address China's apparent retaliation, the president said he thought he “didn’t look quite as scared” as Kerr. The president then added he thought both their responses were “pretty sad actually.”
Popovich threw a jab at Trump while praising NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's defense of free speech earlier this week in response to China's actions against the pro-basketball league. Chinese state television said it canceled the planned broadcast of two NBA exhibition games due to be played in the country this week after Morey tweeted and then deleted support for Hong Kong protesters. Chinese companies and the Chinese Basketball Association began to sever their ties with the team, and the Chinese government demanded an apology, but Silver shot back that the NBA's free speech would be protected regardless of the consequences.
Popovich lauded Silver's response to the controversy as showing a “big difference” from “we’ve had to live through the past three years,” referring to Trump's constant attacks against the media.
For all his criticism towards the coaches for not directly addressing China's role in the fight, Trump didn't seem to have the stomach to do it either.
“They have to work out their own situation,” the president said of the dispute. “The NBA, they know what they're doing.”
Warriors player Steph Curry, who had also been a target for Trump, said he had to “welcome Steve (Kerr) to the club” in response to the president's attacks against his coach. “That's kind of par for the course there,” he reportedly joked to reporters.